flow state brain

Work With The Flow

Felicity Hinton
Felicity Hinton
Achievement Awards Group

Editor’s Note: I’ve wanted to explore “Flow” for a while now. It’s something I’ve felt when writing, when performing, in sports and relationships and a number of other settings. I’ve tried to understand it, so that I could better summon, share and control it. I’ve gotten a little better – I use rituals and timing – but it’s still a mystery, which makes it even cooler (I'm far too influenced by Star Wars and a science background that’s convinced me there are secret ways to unleash magic).

As you can sense from that paragraph, I am not the person to write about Flow. Felicity Hinton is, and I expect we’ll hear a lot more about it, from her and others, on PeopleScience soon.


I remember a summer from my childhood; a golden summer. I was nine, and among the group of kids in our neighborhood, that season will forever be remembered as The Summer of the Fort.

Growing up in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1970s, there was a lot of open space – or veld, as it’s known in South Africa. Wide areas of land covered in grass and scrub, perfect terrain for a group of intrepid, young explorers with the seemingly endless days of summer ahead of them. That particular summer, during one of our daily excursions into the veld, we found the perfect place to build a fort: at the base of small hill, with a natural overhang of rock to protect it from the routine, afternoon thunderstorms that typify the Highveld climate.

We spent days collecting rocks and building a wall along the single, exposed side of our fort; more days clearing the veld around it; and still more days filling it with the necessary supplies – cool drink and chips, and fitting it with the right fixtures – stools made from Blue gum logs, a wooden crate for a table and a home-sewn flag tied to a stick that proudly declared it ‘Fort Friday’ – named for the day of its completion.

We worked hard to build that fort, yet the days passed blissfully.

I tell this story because all these many, many summers later, I now know what I, and my childhood friends, experienced that summer: Flow.

I now know what I, and my childhood friends, experienced that summer: Flow.

In his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, renowned psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains Flow as

“the positive mental state that arises when an action or task is performed with intense focus and total absorption.” In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi expands on this explanation of flow as:

“… being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

It’s easy to see how Csikszentmihalyi’s work sparked the interest of psychologists involved in the study of intrinsic motivation, notably Deci and Ryan. In some of his later research with Marten Vanteenkiste, Deci acknowledges that: “autonomy has been found to be an important predictor of flow, which is a prototype of intrinsic motivation.”

So, what are Flow’s characteristics? Csikszentmihalyi sets out eight distinct elements:

  1. An optimal balance between skill and challenge
  2. A merging of awareness with action
  3. Specific goals
  4. Rapid feedback
  5. Concentration
  6. Control
  7. An absence of self-consciousness
  8. A sense of timelessness

What’s really fascinating about Flow state is how individuals can push beyond the physical limits of hunger, fatigue and even physical discomfort – so total is their focus on, and attention to, the activity at hand.


Individuals can push beyond the physical limits of hunger, fatigue and even physical discomfort – so total is their focus on, and attention to, the activity at hand.

But what causes Flow?

The simple and scientific answer (thanks to neuroimaging) is pleasure.

We know that the Flow state induces a powerful blend of neurochemicals that enhances our cognitive abilities and create peak performance conditions.

These brain chemicals include noradrenaline, which works to heighten the body’s senses; dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ chemical associated with rewards; anandamide, the naturally produced opiate, sometimes referred to as ‘the bliss molecule’; mood-stabilizing serotonin; and finally, endorphins, the neurotransmitters that induce euphoria.

In all the years of Csikszentmihalyi’s research into Flow, he seems most drawn to creative people – artists, musicians, designers and dancers, and also athletes – figure skaters, especially.

The reason is simple: people involved in creative activities access the Flow state more easily.

What neuroimaging shows us is that, as different as creative people and creative activities are, in the Flow state they have something in common: a brain wave. More specifically, the alpha wave, a smooth and soothing brain wave activity, the same type observed in the brain scans of meditating monks.

What has all this to do with the work?

But what has all this to do with the world of work, you’re wondering? A lot, if a recent World Economic Forum report on The Future of Jobs is to be taken seriously. This reports states that “creativity will be a necessary asset for anyone working in 2020.”

The same point is highlighted in a 2018 research paper from the McKinsey Global Institute about the rise of new skills in the age of AI and automation: “Demand for higher cognitive skills will grow moderately overall but will rise sharply for some of these skills, especially creativity.”

It’s no surprise then, that websites and blogs that serve readers as diverse as entrepreneurs and early education teachers are filling with content about creativity and creative skills development – everything from brainstorming hacks to creative thought starters.

But they’re missing the point made by Csikszentmihalyi and his research team in 2002, when they identified the conditions for Flow.

If we are to develop people’s creativity at work, it is vital that first, we create the conditions to facilitate creativity’s onset.

Creativity will be a necessary asset for anyone working in 2020.

Three of Flow’s conditions bear emphasizing. And what’s interesting about these three conditions is how they are interconnected:

  • Condition 1: The skill/challenge ratio
  • Condition 2: Feedback
  • Condition 3: Control

Optimal Flow is achieved when an individual is presented with a challenge they perceive to be demanding, yet attainable. Too easy, and they will lose interest in the activity; too difficult, and they may just abandon it.

Next, regular and constructive feedback feeds the Flow state. As with the skill/challenge ratio, if feedback is too critical, there’s a risk the individual will disregard the project, either in frustration or defeatism. Also, if the feedback is too intermittent or lacks relevance, it may disrupt the Flow state, preventing the realization of its end result.

Finally, the control aspect of Flow is all-important. In this context, control has less to do with an individual’s sense of autonomy and more with their sense of self-assurance in their own ability to perform and execute the activity.

At a time when creativity and creative skills are about to see a surge in demand, a deeper understanding of Flow and, most especially, of the conditions that promote its practice can help build future-fit organizations.

Today, we know that employee engagement is a metric, not an outcome. The goal is to create an employee experience capable of unlocking people’s hidden potential. Only now, that potential seems a lot less hidden than before. In fact, it’s visible; in a brainwave, called alpha.

The goal is to create an employee experience capable of unlocking people’s hidden potential.

As I end this article, a colleague asks if I will kindly turn out the lights, since I will be last to leave the office. Honestly, I don’t know where the last four and half hours have gone… Oh, hang on, of course I do.

Felicity Hinton
Felicity Hinton
Achievement Awards Group


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